New Jersey’s northernmost congressional district has long been considered one of its most conservative, but for the past two years it has been represented by a Democrat. For 80-plus years, the Fifth Congressional District had been represented by Republicans, while the district’s borders have been redrawn and even during the few elections in which Democratic presidential candidates won in landslides.
Democrat Josh Gottheimer changed that in 2016, when he won a narrow victory over conservative Republican incumbent Scott Garrett. Gottheimer ran in 2016 against Garrett’s “extremism,” linking him to the Tea Party and, while making the case that he — Gottheimer — was focused on bipartisan solutions.
Gottheimer, who worked as a speechwriter for Bill Clinton and has served in a variety of private-sector positions, won by less than 15,000 votes, carrying 51.1 percent of the tally in a year when Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the district by a single percentage point. The northwestern counties that historically have been the core of the district have not voted Democratic in a presidential election since 1964, though the redistricting following the 2000 and 2010 censuses has added more liberal suburban communities in Bergen and Passaic counties to the district. The Fifth nowparts of Bergen, Passaic, Sussex, and Warren counties.
Given the conservative bent of the district, it is no accident that the candidates on this year’s election ballot — the incumbent, Gottheimer of Wyckoff, and Republican John McCann of Oakland — describe themselves in more conservative terms. Gottheimer, as he did in 2016, paints himself as a centrist and pragmatist who is focused solely on getting things done. While the Trump presidency is the focus of many of this year’s Democratic campaigns — in New Jersey and nationally — Gottheimer has a narrower view. He says the midterms are not so much about Trump but about “people really wanting to put aside extremism and the nastiness” in order to accomplish something.
“What I have found is that what people want are those (candidates who are) going to solve problems and not just yell,” he said. Voters are interested in what candidates can do and oppose “obstruction (for) the sake of it,” he adds. They want politicians who put “constituents above party politics.”
McCann, on the other hand, is explicit in his support for the president. He credits Trump and the Republican Congress with the low unemployment rate and an expanding economy. He also supports Trump’s immigration agenda, including building a wall at the southern border and having Mexico pay for it.
McCann, who serves as general counsel to the state sheriffs association, criticized the “toxic political environment,” blaming Democrats for “physically threatening people they disagree with.” This criticism created a small controversy in September when he linked anti-Semitic vandalism —on campaign signs at the residence of a Gottheimer supporter — to Democratic leadership on . He has continued to press this line of attack against Gottheimer, repeatedly linking him to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and California Congresswoman Maxine Waters. Waters has called for “pushback” against Trump administration officials over the administration’s policy of detaining immigrant children at the border in outdoor pens and cages.
“I think the political environment makes it more difficult for people to come together,” McCann said. “It's the leadership’s responsibility, (and would be) my responsibility in Congress, to put that aside and work for the benefit of the district.”
Immigration has been a central focus for McCann, who calls it a significant security issue. “America is facing great threats from radicals, and the evidence of that is simply 911 and the series (of) other attacks that we that we faced on our soil and that you're seeing in an open borders society like the European Union,” he said.
He said the focus needs to be on strong borders and fairness. People must enter the right way, he said, wait in line and integrate themselves into American society.
“Legal immigration has helped build us up, and we need to continue that, but we also have to keep in mind that we want people to come here and become Americans, to assimilate to our culture,” he said.
The central plank of his immigration agenda — like the president’s — is building a wall, which McCann says will cut down the number of people coming across the border from Mexico. His preference is for Mexico to pay for the wall — Congress has appropriated a small portion of the funding, and McCann said increased federal revenues from the growing economy could cover the costs.
Gottheimer said his focus is on finding a compromise that can lead to a long-term solution. He helped draft anthat included funding for the wall and ramped-up security efforts, but also created a pathway to citizenship for the so-called Dreamers — undocumented immigrants who arrived as children and have spent most of their lives in the United States. The plan, pushed by the self-described Problem-Solvers caucus — a group of 24 Republicans and 24 Democrats, has not moved forward.
“You're going to address the Dreamers plus ensure for tough border security … and it couldn't get to the floor for a vote, which is incredibly frustrating,” he said.
The inability to address the Dreamers’ plight — they had been given protection from deportation by an Obama executive order that was rescinded by Trump but kept in place by the courts — is an indication of the breakdown in Washington, he said. Many on both sides agree that the Dreamers need protection, so “this was an issue that's still pressing and we had a bipartisan solution.”
It’s a theme Gottheimer returns to often.
“The wrong thing would be to retreat further to extremes for both sides and not talk to each other,” he said. “We actually have to work together. We have to deal with these issues. You can’t ignore healthcare or immigration or infrastructure.”
The October 4 train derailment offers an example of why infrastructure is important, and why both sides need to come together to address the state’s crumbling bridges and rail stations, Gottheimer said. The rail tunnels between New Jersey and New York City that carries thousands of New Jersey commuters daily are “170 years, 180 years old now, and you're talking about a $100 million a day hit to the economy for each tube that comes down.” And the longer we wait to build new tunnels and repair the existing ones, the more likely it is that a tunnel will need to be closed, cutting the number of trains to a trickle.
“I think this is a five-alarm fire,” he said, adding that there are resources but they are being held up in red tape and a system that keeps New Jersey sending more money to Washington than the state gets back in services.
The tunnels are only one of many infrastructure challenges facing the state, and the federal government is not the only player. Many of the challenges faced are local ones that could be addressed by bringing all of the players together, Gottheimer said, which is why his office spends a lot of time working with local and county governments to ensure they are on the same page and can move projects forward.
McCann responded to questions about infrastructure by lobbing criticism at Democrats. “We have an obligation not to let this upheaval by the American left interfere with our obligations to improve our country and infrastructure,” he said. Trump ran on infrastructure upgrades, he said, and Republicans and some Democrats support upgrades.
“The economy gives us the money to do it, so it certainly helps when you have people working and people contributing to the tax rolls,” he said. “We can prioritize that spending.”
He said regulations are stalling new projects, adding that he was not prepared to identify specific rules. In general, however, he said “some of it is environmental; some of it is just permit and bureaucracy, red tape, you know, people justifying their jobs.”
It’s why he supports a broader restructuring of the regulatory state, which would speed projects and give businesses more room to operate. “One of the things the Trump administration is talking about that I support is reducing those regulations so we can get this done in the most efficient and effective way.”
McCann said the current unemployment rate of 3.7 percent — a historic low — and the record number of people returning to the workforce are indications that Trump’s economic and regulatory reforms are working, especially the 2017 tax cuts, which he said should be made permanent. Those cuts, which included the doubling of the child tax credit and “the doubling of the exemption for the death tax, which really helps small businesses.” He said the so-called cap on the SALT deduction (the amount of state and local taxes that can be deducted on federal tax returns) was not an issue, despite it being targeted by the Democrats, because it is offset by the savings from the other deductions and the increase in jobs caused by the tax cuts and new trade policies.
“The credit” for the current economic climate, he said, belongs to Trump and the Republican Congress. Businesses were encouraged by high corporate tax rates during the Obama administration, to keep a tremendous amount of investment on the sidelines.” The tax bill reduces those rates from about 35 percent to less than 25 percent, which has encouraged corporations spend more money.
“Investment in America by American corporations is done with expectations, and the reason why so much investment was on the sidelines during Obama's administration was because of the uncertainty that he created. People will invest when they have certainty.”
Gottheimer disagrees about the SALT deduction, calling it a matter of affordability. The state, he said, is among the least business friendly in the nation because of high taxes, “red tape,” and failing infrastructure. The cap on deducting state and local taxes costs New Jersey homeowners, especially those in higher tax counties like Bergen, a lot of money.
“There was bipartisan opposition” in New Jersey to the tax cuts, Gottheimer said, despite support for a corporate tax cut designed to help the United States be more “competitive globally,” because they hit the state hard.
“We paid for these tax breaks on our backs in New Jersey, so other states like Florida, Texas, North Carolina, other states did well, because they have low income tax and low property taxes,” he said.
The cap exacerbates what Gottheimer calls the “mooched state” problem. Washington, he said, has a history of taking money in taxes from New Jersey residents, due to their higher incomes, but has sent very little back.
“Mississippi gets $4.38 back for every dollar they pay in federal taxes and we get, historically, 33 cents,” he said. He has been working with local governments to make sure they apply for grants and other programs to “claw back” more money from the federal government. He also is working to repeal the SALT cap and give businesses in states that pay more to the federal government “a first bite of the apple on federal contracts.”
As the race enters its final weeks, both candidates say they plan to continue meeting and talking with voters.
“(Voters) want people who are going to stand up and call balls and strikes, which is what I do,” Gottheimer said, adding “that's what people hire you to do.”
McCann agreed that the goal should be cooperation, but he questioned whether the Democrats were truly interested in working with Republicans.
“We all care about this country,” he said. “What we are watching on TV right now is, I mean, people demanding violence because they didn't get their way. They are not respecting election. That's one side. I'm sorry to say that, but that's real.”